Dickens In America

By - Dec 1st, 2006 02:52 pm
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By Russ Bickerstaff

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As respected as authors are onstage, they are rarely thrown directly into the spotlight. When they are given the stage, the results can be disastrous. It may be a bit extreme and overly dramatic to say that lead actor James Ridge has to achieve the single best performance of the 2005 – 2006 Milwaukee theatre season in order for Dickens In America to be any good at all, but I just did. (And he does.) Seeing as how Ridge is the only actor performing in Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s mid-season show, he has to be entertaining enough to carry an entire production. The fact that he’s playing Charles Dickens means that Ridge also has to live-up to the stature of a literary legend without looking exceedingly foolish. Ridge manages both of these feats, almost single-handedly providing a substantially hipper holiday alternative (or supplement, if you will) to the Milwaukee Rep’s annual mega-production of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Written by accomplished actor/playwright James DeVita, Dickens In America is a touching bit of historical drama surmising a public performance by the famous author in Milwaukee on his last tour of America. Nathan Stuber’s set is a lush, mid-19th century theatre setting. Red curtains and glass chandeliers reminiscent of the Pabst Theater adorn the stage. Footlights provide a striking effect as thick curtains draw back to reveal Ridge, buried somewhere beneath the distinctive hair and beard. Hovering visually somewhere between himself and his character, Ridge resembles a somewhat gaunt, hauntingly intense image of Dickens – the kind you’d see after reading a tattered copy of A Tale of Two Cities all night for a high school literature class.

Ridge’s personal charisma as an actor fuels the performance. His eyes dart around the audience, drawing deep and disparate attentions to him with a gentleman’s charm. He recites Dickens’ work with an authors’ passion for and pride of his own work. He pauses at nearly perfect moments to affect intensity. Ridge delivers Dickens’ love of storytelling and theatrics in with infectious passion. There really isn’t anything that fans of Dickens aren’t already familiar with, but it’s a great pleasure to sit back, tilt the head, squint the eyes and picture that Ridge really is Dickens giving one last performance before he retires from the stage.

Ridge brings a panoramic range of different British accents to the stage as he plays the theatrically inclined Dickens performing scenes from Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist and more. Ridge plays Dickens performing a rather large cast of distinctly different characters, as well. There may not be enough plot development in any given scene to provide Ridge the opportunity to portray much depth in any individual character, but the real accomplishment here is that none of them blur together. As with any show, however, some characters are more memorable than others. When Ridge performs bits from A Christmas Carol, clever ears may hear something familiar in Ridge’s portrayal of Scrooge. It may be coincidence or fanciful hearing on my part, but Ridge seems to be doing an impression of Rep actor Lee Ernst as Scrooge. The actors have shared the stage before, so it’s possible that Ridge is paying homage to the Rep’s Scrooge from the other side of the theatre district. Even if he isn’t it’s fun to think so. VS

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of Dickens in America runs now through December 17th at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre. Tickets can be purchased by calling the box office at 414-291-7800 or online at www.chamber-theatre.com.

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